Voltaire was born almost dead.  He suffered from numerous infirmities and spent his life complaining about his sufferings.

In spite of this, he maintained a life-long intellectual activity, rarely equalled in the literary world, and managed to live to a very ripe old age.  How did he do it?

To start with, he often boasted about treating himself, and of keeping away from doctors.  He said that he was his own doctor.  So, what were his secrets?

He was born prematurely, and was only just breathing when his mother gave birth to him.  It was thought that he would live only a few hours.  A few weeks at most.

His health was so critical that even the emergency baptism was delayed, so as not to put his life in danger.  He was properly baptised eight months after the emergency baptism, which obliged his parents to give a false date of birth, so as to hide this long delay.

How did this child, born of a father and a mother who were “unhealthy and died young”, and himself of frail and delicate health, manage to arrive at adolescence without too many problems?  The best register of his various indispositions is his own correspondance.

The first illness of which he writes is in 1723.  He was approaching thirty when he caught smallpox during a local epidemic.  He was a guest of Mr de Maisons at the time, in a magnificent manor house, planned by Mansart, and situated on the spot which has since become Maisons-Laffitte.

He received treatment from Dr Gervasi, and was lucky enough to recover, but not without being marked.  At least for a certain time.

Soon after his recovery, he wrote to Mme de Bernieres:  “You will see me with a horrible scabies which covers me all over…  Where would I be if I wanted my only merit in your eyes to be my ladylike skin?  (…)  Luckily,  I know that you are virtuous and friendly enough to put up with a poor leper like me.”

What treatment did he follow?  He gives us all of the details.

He was bled twice, the second time on his own insistance “in spite of vulgar prejudice”.  His doctor made him take an emetic eight times and, instead of the tonics “that are usually given for this illness”, he made him drink two hundred pints of lemonade.

He then tells us about the remedies used by the doctors of the time, to fight this terrible illness.  He tells us of the fashionable remedies, the ones that people rush to take, thinking that they will get better:  the remedy of Father Aignan, the Capuchin friar to whom we owe the formula for Peaceful Balm;  lotions containing Rabel’s Water;  frictions with Varenger’s Balm, the recipe of which has been lost.

The Regent’s mother, when attacked by smallpox, insisted on treating herself.  She did this by leaving all of her windows wide open, sucked ice, changed her linen three times a day – a shocking novelty for the times! – refused to be bled – oh, scandal! – and, for her only medication, took  “Powder of the Countess”, better known as “Kent Powder”.

Second part tomorrow.

Advertisements